Alexis C. Madrigal, a columnist for The Atlantic and a cofounder of the COVID tracking project, got a mild breakthrough COVID case at a destination wedding in New Orleans. Instead of just going to bed for two weeks like a normal person, he wrote an essay about it wherein the only thing he makes clearer than his dedication to his workout routine is how he believes his story is a horrifying parable for our time.
It isn’t. It’s an unremarkable story from a public health perspective, though Madrigal’s inclusion of specific details make this piece a fascinating study of what it’s like to be an American man with a certain level of privilege who also just so happens to have a huge platform and a deadline to meet. Social distancing, it seems, has inflamed his out-of-touchness with what most people have endured over the course of the last 20 months.
By his account, Madrigal hems and haws about being invited to a wedding of a friend he hasn’t seen since before the pandemic. He puts off RSVPing until the last final moment, but so obsessed is Madrigal with the concept of New Orleans (“a miraculous place, and my favorite city to visit in America”) that he relents. He books a last-minute flight, thinking things finally seem like they’re getting back to normal for normal folks like him.
“My friend is a doctor, and I knew the crowd would mostly be New York and California people. There would be no anti-vaxxers among the guests, and the invitation said they’d follow the local public-health protocols,” Madrigal writes. Thank God.
He’s a little taken aback at wedding welcome drinks when people are celebrating maskless, but gets drunk off tequila sodas and sallies forth. The next day, the reception is indoors, but “in a huge, airy, gorgeous building.” Chic. Afterwards, everyone’s in tuxedos listening to old time music at a bar in the French Quarter. But he has the foresight to leave the festivities before things get a little too aerosol-y. Wistfully, he walks the streets, thinking to himself, “Just look at all those people singing at the piano bar, dancing to Lizzo, arm in arm with friend and stranger alike.” New York and California people are so beautiful.
Madrigal takes a rapid PCR test at the airport on his way back that comes back negative, but he starts feeling some symptoms. He takes a few more PCR tests — all negative. He does “an intense Peloton workout and it felt fine, though maybe my legs were a little slow.” But then, while on the phone with a “young geographer,” he tests positive on an antigen test.
He leaves his house immediately, “able to find a long-term rental on our block thanks to an angelic neighbor,” which gives the reader some clues to the general Airbnb-ness of his neighborhood. He breaks the news to his kids, who are devastated:
They reacted in different ways. My nonbinary 8-year-old was so mad and maybe so scared that they could barely look at me. My 5-year-old daughter proved her status as the ultimate ride-or-die kid. She brought a chair down the street so she could sit 20 feet away from me outside in her mask, as I sat on the porch in an N95. I’m not sure which reaction was more heartbreaking. It was as if one never wanted to see me again and the other didn’t want to let me out of her sight.
You may be thinking, spending a few childcare-light days at an Airbnb on your own block with a mild throat “tickle” that does not prevent you from either doing Peloton workouts or writing an essay for The Atlantic does not sound that bad. In fact, you may think it sounds a lot better than the trips I have taken to the Bay Area, particularly the family vacation we took to Alcatraz when I was nine. Either way, how dare you?
As I write this, I’m now 10 days past my first symptoms, but I continue to test positive on antigen tests, and so I have not returned home. I haven’t hugged my kids for 10 days. They missed a whole week of school, and my wife’s work life got turned upside down—even though they never tested positive or got sick. I blame no one but myself for this. We cannot will this pandemic to be over. Lord knows I tried.
Things get briefly existential when, in a heartwarming display of empathy, he takes the time to nod to “communities where ignoring the pandemic is the norm” and where “COVID testing might not be standard.” But rather than taking this opportunity to draw any kind of conclusion about the insignificance of his own extremely uneventful brush with mild inconvenience, he closes that parenthetical swiftly, returning to his target audience. “In social worlds like mine, though, where most people do work from home, where people have minimized risk and gotten vaccinated, we’re at a weird moment.” Indeed we are.